I was intending not to double up on the institutional violence posts but this is what forced its way onto the page this month. Next post I'm going to plan on sharing something beautiful from my history but I'll wait to make any promises for now. If you really don't want this to turn into a trauma regurgitation blog send me a message and I'll see what I can do. In the meantime this post deals with jail and violence so if that’s not what you’re in the mood for right now (or ever) please feel free to
SKIP TO THE MUSIC
“This one’s gonna give us problems, I can tell already," The guard says, seeing me for the first time as I'm unloaded from the van. "You wanna take the arm bar or the pressure point?”
“Fuck this guy, I’m on the arm bar.” His partner replies.
With this he grabs my right arm which is handcuffed behind my back and forces it up, using the handcuffs to torque my wrist the wrong way. My left arm goes along for the ride but since it’s not targeted by the technique it just sort of dangles awkwardly.
The first guard now moves to my left side and squeezes the muscle tissue behind my collar bone.
I turn, intending to say, 'this isn’t necessary' but before I open my mouth, Arm Bar says, “What the fuck did you just say to me?” and torques the handcuff further. I can feel the metal edge slicing through the final layers of skin.
I’d just spent a night on the floor of the Toronto Eastern Avenue film studio which had been converted into a detention facility for the thousand plus people who had been arrested for protesting the G20. A few years later, a class action lawsuit will be filed around the “inhumane conditions” of that detention facility which gets tactlessly dubbed "Torontonomo Bay". Having just been transferred into the custody of Maplehurst maximum-security jail, I am now in Arrival and Departures, also known as Admitting and Discharge and commonly referred to as A and D, where I will quickly be shown that the #InhumaneConditions of the G20 holding cells, pale in comparison to the everyday realities of jail.
I had previously spent a bunch of time in police custody but except for the very first arrest (a story for another time) it was always for "nice" activisty things like blocking a dump truck carrying hazardous waste to groundwater. This, combined with my ability to look and sound like an intelligent, middle-class white guy meant that I generally got a pass on targeted abuse by police.
In a strange way I kind of get cops. Their world view is like a comic book. There’s #badguys who go around hurting the citizens and it’s up to #goodguys to go out and stop them. Then they get so hopped up on stories and videos of violence, like how quickly a knife wielder can kill you or how someone was shot x number of times and still managed to complete the murder... That stuff will screw you up.
Once I spent a few weeks binge watching caught-on-camera violence on the Active Self Protection YouTube channel. I was trying to draw out real world self-defense principals. During this time, when I would go for a walk every person I saw looked like they were either reaching for a weapon or else about to manifest some horrendous attack on whoever was closest to them. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t my place to forgive the police for the horrendous violence they continue to inflict on the poor, the racialized and the insane - and for the record I don't - but I can at least understand the stories they tell themselves to some degree. They say when your only tool is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail. I guess when your tool of choice is a service issue Glock loaded with hollow-point bullets...
Later on, my experience with Pressure Point and Arm Bar will be contextualized most poetically by a piece of jail wisdom passed to me by another prisoner:
“Prison guards are the worst people in the world and 'A and D' guards are who the other guards think are the worst people in the world”.
As I'm lead down the short hall of A and D, my body has taken me to the place of cold calm that I find during crisis, I am numb.
“Listen to how tough he thinks he is.” Arm Bar says, “Keep it up tough guy, crack to me again and see what happens.”
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t made a noise to either of them and never would, they were playing a different game.
Then a little further on, “You say one more thing tough guy and I’m gonna put your fucking head through the wall.”
I am briefly placed into a lineup with the other prisoners waiting to be processed but before long Pressure Point comes back. “What was that fuckface? That’s it, I’m sick of your shit, we fucking warned you.” He yells at me, then, turning to one of the other guards, "I want this piece of shit in a cell with no camera.”
One of my co-accused flashes me a look as I’m led away. He is scared and confused but I am floating above the room. Many years will go by before therapy teaches me how to tell this story as if it was about a different person in order to find my grief.
The new guard seems bored with his job and irritated at being taken away from the video games that let him ignore his colleagues' terror racket. He takes me out of the lineup to a holding cell removed from the rest. The cell is entirely concrete with benches around the perimeter. There is no toilet or sink but there is a phone on the wall.
There is no camera.
“Sit there and don’t move and don’t touch the phone.” he says as if he’s reading a script and then walks away leaving me locked inside with Pressure Point glaring at me through the door.
“I’m going to come back and check on you and if you’ve even twitched
I swear to god you will die in here.”
I sit frozen for literally minutes willing myself to move. Finally, feeling the trickle of blood running down my right wrist I wipe it off with my other hand.
But this isn't enough. I will not be the person who sits still. I remember the words of an anarchist friend passing on advice she'd been given in turn. When she said it I had to struggle not to roll my eyes but now they are a lifeline:
"Erik, you are an anarchist and that means two things.
One, you will go to jail, and
Two, you will survive."
Finding my courage I get up and begin pacing the cell.
This is a reharmonization I did of the Bon Iver song Skinny Love. If you haven't heard the original, give it a listen. Birdy's version is also beautiful but I have some beef about rewriting to such an overused chord progression. Kind of like taking a masterfully developed photograph and putting a sepia filter on it.
I first heard the original on a CD mix-tape that belonged to a friend of mine as we drove back and forth between Toronto and the dumpsite 41 blockade camp in 2009. I had a long standing crush on her and never got up the courage to say anything about it but after dropping her off in Toronto I would listen to the tape on repeat the whole drive back to Simcoe County and feel wonderful amounts of tragic, youthful heartache.